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From discrimination to ethnic cleansing – the fate of Myanmar’s stateless Rohingya

8 min read

Rohingya are an ethnic, religious and linguistic minority, traditionally concentrated in the northern part of Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, on the border with Bangladesh. Most practice Sunni Islam and speak the Rohingya language. They are considered the largest single group of stateless people in the world and together are thought to account for as many as one in every seven stateless persons. Described by the UN as the world’s most persecuted minority, their current predicament has been in large part facilitated by their lack of citizenship – the culmination of a long history of violence and discrimination.

Though up to date official statistics on the population of Rohingya do not exist – the government refuses to recognize the term Rohingya and has typically referred to them as ‘Bengali migrants’, excluding them from the last census conducted in 2014 – it did estimate a population it referred to as a ‘non-enumerated population in Rakhine state’ of just under 1.1 million. Many have been forced to flee their country due to continued attacks by security forces, vigilante groups and extremists: the most recent wave of violence, beginning in August 2017, has displaced almost half a million Rohingya into Bangladesh.

Even before then, however, hundreds of thousands were living outside the country, predominantly in Bangladesh but also Malaysia, Thailand and further afield. The vast majority of Rohingya are regarded as stateless and most outside Myanmar are also refugees – a direct result of having been denied citizenship by the Myanmar government.

A long history of persecution

The history of Rohingya is contested by Myanmar authorities as part of their sustained campaign to repress their claims to citizenship: the government asserts that they are descendants of immigrants from India and Bangladesh, encouraged by the colonial administration. Evidence to the contrary is compelling, however: one often cited record is that of Scottish doctor Francis Buchanan, writing in 1799, who documented that Arakan was also known as ‘Rovingaw’ among ‘Mohammedans [Muslims], who have been long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan’, almost a quarter-century before the colonial era. Indeed, many scholars trace the first Muslim communities back to the early 15th century.

Relations between Rohingya and other Burmese communities had already deteriorated during the Second World War, when tensions rose as the conflict between the British and the Japanese polarized loyalties, with Rohingya siding with the former. Nevertheless, after Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948, the parliamentary government recognized Rohingya as citizens and referred to them as Rohingya, even Prime Minister U Nu, and issued government identification. Furthermore, an area in what was then Arakan state was administered separately to the rest of majority Buddhist Rakhine.

Nevertheless, Rohingya were increasingly estranged as Burmese authorities purged the military and civil administration of Muslims, in the process detaining many Rohingya leaders arbitrarily. In the ensuing years, a low-level secessionist movement brewed in northern Arakan. Following the coup under Nu Win in 1962, a sustained military presence was imposed on the area, with frequent military interventions that made little effort to distinguish between rebels and civilians. This was accompanied by a broader erosion of the civil and political rights of the Rohingya people, reinforced by increasing rhetoric of Rohingya as ‘illegal immigrants’. By 1970, Rohingya were no longer being issued national registration cards and in 1974 they were denied the right to move – a significant turning point in their reclassification from citizens to stateless ‘immigrants’.

The road to statelessness

The 1982 Citizenship law served to finally disenfranchise Rohingya of their citizenship rights. It created three classes of citizens: full, associate and naturalized citizens. Full citizens are those that belong to one of the listed 135 ‘national races’ or those who can prove that their ancestors were in the country prior to the start of British colonization in 1823 or by descent; associate citizens are those who qualify for citizenship under the previous citizenship law of 1948, but who cannot prove that their ancestors were in the country prior to 1823, so do not qualify under the 1982 law; and naturalized citizens are those that can prove their parents entered the country before 1948,. The three classes of citizens do not enjoy equal rights under the law.

The law is thought to have been designed specifically to undermine the rights of Rohingya. Since they are not included in the ‘national races,’ Rohingya must trace their lineage back almost two centuries to prove their continued inhabitation in the country. But because of systematic disenfranchisement, many Rohingya have difficulty proving legal residency as they have routinely had their documents confiscated and are arbitrarily deprived of their citizenship.

A citizenship verification drive began in 1989, whereby people were issued colour-coded identification cards based on the class of citizenship. Applicants were asked to submit their old national registration cards, but for many of the Rohingya who returned from Bangladesh following the mass displacements in 1991, they did not receive replacements but were instead issued white ‘temporary registration cards’, regardless of any outstanding claims to citizenship or supporting documentation.

The white card did, however, enable Rohingya to vote in the 2010 general and the 2012 bi-election. These white cards were subsequently revoked in early 2015, barring card holders from voting or standing for parliament in the 2015 elections. This also had the effect of dispossessing approximately 700,000-800,000 people, most of whom were Rohingya, of their only form of legal status identification.

The transition to civilian government has only further eroded the rights of Rohingya. More rounds of citizenship verification were initiated, starting with Thein Sein from 2012-2015 and continuing with Aung San Suu Kyi in 2016. Both have largely failed due to restrictions on self-identifying as Rohingya, distrust from affected populations, unclear processes and opposition from anti-Rohingya Buddhist nationalist groups.

The denial of citizenship has been used to justify further exclusion, marginalization and institutionalized discrimination. Rohingya have been subject to travel restrictions for decades but restrictions on travel increased after the violence of 2012. Such violations on the freedom of movement greatly limits rights to healthcare, education, livelihood opportunities and religious activities. Even free travel between or within townships is not permitted and requires a lengthy and expensive approval process by the local administration, violation of which is a punishable criminal act.

Other restrictions were tightened in 2012, including those on birth, death, immigration, migration, marriage, construction of new religious buildings, land ownership and the right to repair and construct buildings. Violating these restrictions result in harassment, extortion, detention and abuse by authorities. Their lack of citizenship bars them from being employed by the government, including as doctors, nurses and teachers.

Restrictions on births and marriage are severe. Rohingya must register births with the local authorities for a fee, but are often denied birth registration for various discriminatory reasons, such as the categorization of many marriages as ‘unauthorized’, as Rohingya must also seek permission from authorities to marry; the Rohingya two-child policy, in place since 2005; or, more frequently, expensive and cumbersome processes. These policies have resulted in around 5,000 unregistered Rohingya babies, also known as ‘black-list babies’, that cannot obtain travel registration, access health and education. Birth registration of Muslim babies in Rakhine reportedly stopped after 2012, leading experts to estimate that half of all babies in Rakhine state do not have birth registration, perpetuating cycles of statelessness.

The situation today

The persecution of Rohingya has entered a deadly new phase over the last year, beginning in October 2016 when in response to attacks on military border posts the army launched major offensives in Rakhine targeting Rohingya indiscriminately and resulting in widespread displacement, death and other human rights abuses. In March 2017, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to send an international fact-finding mission to Myanmar. The resolution called on Myanmar to eliminate statelessness and institutionalized discrimination, with particular reference to reviewing the 1982 Citizenship law.

More recently, however, violence against the community has escalated following an attack by a recently formed Rohingya armed group on Burmese security forces in August 2017 that enabled the military to initiate a devastating ‘clearance operation’ that has targeted unarmed Rohingya men, women and children indiscriminately. Amidst reports of brutal atrocities, village burnings and the rape, torture and murder of hundreds of Rohingya, a wave of mass displacement has pushed close to half a million Rohingya to cross into Bangladesh, with more crossing the border daily as the ethnic cleansing of Rakhine by Burmese forces continues.

In this context, the focus in much international coverage has understandably been on the immediate impacts of this violence and the need to provide urgent humanitarian support. Yet to ensure a long term and peaceful end to the brutal persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya, their full citizenship must also be urgently restored. Their state’s representation of Rohingya as illegal migrants or ‘Bengalis’ belonging in neighbouring Bangladesh, reflected in their stripping of their nationality and associated rights, has played an important role in enabling human rights violations against the community. Ending the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of these abuses requires, firstly, that they are recognized as citizens of Myanmar – a step that the government, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, has so far refused to contemplate.

At the same time, the long term stigmatization of Rohingya is so deep-rooted in society that meaningful inclusion will require far more than administrative or legal reform, important though that is in providing a measure of security to the community. These processes will also need to be accompanied by community resolution and education at a social level to ensure entrenched prejudice towards the community is steadily eroded. Myanmar’s system of institutionalized racism and discrimination effectively ensures the Rohingya population remain in a condition of statelessness: for this to be resolved effectively, then, requires a comprehensive end to its protracted exclusion of its Muslims citizens, reform of the citizenship law and a broader programme of social, political and economic emancipation.

Nicole Girard

Photo: Rohinyga in Myanmar. Credit: Mathias Eick EU/ECHO.